If we are constantly following what others say and think, we never live our own lives; we live other people’s lives; our centre of gravity is somewhere else. The Kalama sutta is classic in pointing this out (see below). The Buddha goes along to this town, Kesaputta, and the people there, the Kalamas, seize the opportunity to ask him about something they’ve been grappling with for a long time: ‘Someone comes and tells us how marvellous his teaching is and how second-rate everyone else’s is. And then someone else comes and says the same—“My teaching is great, the best; everyone else just talks rubbish!”’ So the Kalamas are asking the Buddha how to judge who to believe, and he says, ‘Well, you shouldn’t believe anyone. It’s not a question of believing or not believing what anyone says. If you want to know reality, you have to recognise it. You’re ignoring your own experience of what is happening to you. That’s the difficulty.’
The Buddha was not telling people to disregard what others said, but was encouraging them to become aware of what they know deep within themselves. The Buddhist practice is based on this; we are to pay close attention to our experiences, on what we find ourselves, on what we know ourselves. We either know something or we think about it. These two are not the same. We can believe what thought throws up moment-by-moment, and we can believe what others tell us, but what’s the point? We all know what life is; we’re experiencing it. Why do we defer to others’ views all the time, whether they are so-called ‘experts’ or have some authority over us, or not. We all know that life is not static, so why do we think about it as though it were? We cannot know reality through a jumble of thoughts, views and opinions or even views that seem ordered and reasonable, whether they are our own or anyone else’s. We think everything has to make some kind of sense. Life arises whether we want it to or not in the here and now, spontaneously—we hear it, we see it, we feel it, we know it for what it is, beyond thought. Getting to this place of immediacy is what Buddhism is all about; that is the practice and the purpose of the practice.
Here in this moment we know whether we feel good or not, whether we’re suffering or not. Then, if we can see the connection between the way we think and act, and what happens in terms of happiness and suffering, we are in a position to opt for one way of life in preference to another. This is a personal choice—after investigating what we know from our momentary experiences of body and mind.
Of course we should listen to others, but rather than innocently or mindlessly accepting someone else’s methods and views, whoever they are, the Buddha suggests we test things out for ourselves, and in the Kalama sutta he goes into detail about not believing someone just because he or she is your teacher, or because you have read something inspiring, or because you have heard some well known person giving a talk, or even because you have thought something logical or reasonable yourselves. Find out first whether it is true. If you find it is, then follow it, but if you find it only leads to an unhappy state, then don’t follow it. Otherwise, we’re living a second-hand life, a poor life, and a troubled or unfulfilled life. Buddhism is about first-hand living and finding liberation from suffering.
The Kalamas were in the same position that we are in today—a lot of conflicting information—which do you believe? The point is, our stability and happiness is at stake. If we follow what others say and yet do not find our way through suffering, then is it their fault or ours? If we are going to make mistakes it might as well be our own because then at least we know where not to go, and there is a possibility of changing direction. We can take responsibility for our own lives by intelligently investigating it and then acting from what we discover. I love Sir Edwin Arnold’s wonderful epic poem, The Light of Asia, and those haunting words:
I, Buddha, who wept with all my brothers’ tears,
Whose heart was broken by a whole world’s woe,
Laugh and am glad, for there is Liberty!
Ho! you who suffer! know
You suffer from yourselves. None else compels,
None other holds you that you live and die,
And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss
Its spokes of agony . . .
But if we suffer from ourselves, no one else can tread the path for us. That, I think, is central to Buddhism; it’s our own path, our own responsibility.
Diana St Ruth
Instruction To The Kalamas
Thus have I heard: Once Gotama, the Buddha, while journeying in the Kosala country with a large community of monks, entered a town of the Kalama people called Kesaputta. The Kalamas had heard that this Gotama was fully enlightened, fully realised, and they went to him and said, ‘There are some monks and Brahmins, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta; they exalt their own doctrines and pull to pieces the doctrines of others. Then they go on their way and others come and do the same. In consequence, we are full of doubt about who speaks the truth and who falsehood.’
‘It is proper for you to doubt and be uncertain about these things. Now, Kalamas, do not go by hearsay, nor by what is handed down by others, nor by what people say, nor by what is stated on the authority of your traditional teachings. Do not go by reasoning, or by inferring, or by argument as to method, nor from reflection on and approval of an opinion, nor out of respect, thinking a recluse must be deferred to. But when you yourselves know: “These things are not good, they are blameworthy, censured by the wise; when followed and put into practice, they lead to loss and suffering,” then abandon them.
‘What do you think, Kalamas? When greed appears in people, is it for their benefit or for their harm?’
‘For their harm, venerable sir.’
‘Kalamas, being given to greed, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, people take life, they steal, commit adultery and tell lies; they also prompt others to do likewise. Will that be long for their harm and ill?’
‘It will, indeed, venerable sir.’
‘Therefore, Kalamas, do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration: “The monk is our teacher.” Kalamas, when you yourselves know that these things are bad, that these things are blamable, that these things are censured by the wise, that if undertaken and observed, these things will lead to harm and ill, then abandon them.
‘In the same way, when you yourselves know that something is good, is not blamable, is praised by the wise, and leads to benefit and happiness, then enter on and abide in it.
‘What do you think, Kalamas? When there is absence of greed, hate and delusion in people, is that for their benefit or for their harm?’
‘For their benefit, venerable sir.’
‘Kalamas, being not given to greed, hate and delusion, being not overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by these things, people do not take life, steal, commit adultery, tell lies, or prompt others to do likewise. Will that be long for their benefit and happiness?’
‘It will, venerable sir.’
References: Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera, BPS. Some Sayings of the Buddha according to the Pali Canon, Translated by F.L. Woodward, The Buddhist Society.
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Thank you so much. Reading this is feeling much better and understand more. Namaste, Ankie
This is a great sutta, as it shows the Kalamas the correct method of inquiry. Unfortunately it is also a sutta that is often misquoted to say that we do not have to believe in the Teachings of Lord Buddha, especially His teaching on Rebirth.
I am thinking of posting about this later today.
Thank you sir,
I follow the path.
This is a very thoughtful post Diana – thank you so much for sharing it.
Much as I appreciate the good advice expressed in the Kalama Sutra I do sometimes wonder if my own experience of life is any more reliable than the experiences of others! Still, no one said being a Dharma practitioner would be easy…